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Turn Right

 “Rights and wrongs” need not stand in opposition to each other


There’s a commonplace confusion between rights and wrongs which, if clarified, might go a long way toward healing the ruptures in contemporary society.

Unlike moral dilemmas involving an existential choice between good and evil, “rights and wrongs” need not stand in opposition to each other. One can well claim his rights, the ethical and legal license to do something, while recognizing that it might still be wrong of him to actually do it.

Consider the case of morally repugnant speech. Until not very long ago, at least, liberals were fond of citing Voltaire, that Enlightenment icon (and unrepentant anti-Semite), for the view that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The problem is, however, that people using that line often put all the emphasis on its latter half, while never actually getting around to expressing their disapproval of the other’s speech. Rights — in this case, freedom of speech — become central, and wrongs — the actual speech of which one ostensibly disapproves — become tangential. And thus, we begin to suspect that the righteous invocation of “your right to say it” is no more than a convenient fig-leaf for the suspension of all moral judgment.

A former left-leaning philosophy instructor at New York University once expressed it this way:

For years I’ve tried to get my students to talk about “it.” “It” can be almost any controversial issue, but we never get there; my students, like most of my academic colleagues and New York City Upper West Side friends, and the American left in general, have long ago ceded actual moral judgments to others, i.e., moral conservatives…. Say the topic is [obscenity]. I gamely ask my class: “Do you think [obscenity] is degrading? Ignoble? Liberating?”

   The hands go up: “People have a right to see what they want.” Three other hands: “Who decides what counts as [obscenity] anyway?” I say: “Okay, let’s agree, censorship is absolutely wrong: Now about [obscenity]… what do you think about it?” Another hand: “According to the First Amendment….” This refusal to address “the thing itself,” has been going on for decades and is systemic….

But the very same jumbling of what one may do with what one should do is in evidence on the right side of the political ledger, too. In a New York Times piece on the current sharp upsurge in cases due to the highly contagious Omicron variant, with more than 125,000 Americans testing positive daily and hospitalizations increasing nearly 20 percent in two weeks, David Leonhardt noted that in the United States, “partisanship is the biggest factor determining vaccination rates. If Democratic voters made up their own country, it would be one of the world’s most vaccinated, with more than 91 percent of adults having received at least one shot. Only about 60 percent of Republican adults have done so. This vaccination gap has created a huge gap in death rates, one that has grown sharply during the second half of the year.”

Leonhardt discusses the early evidence suggesting that Omicron is less severe than previous permutations of the virus and the fact that a substantial number of unvaccinated Americans have already contracted Covid, thereby giving them a level of immunity. But, he writes, “unvaccinated people appear to be in real danger. For one thing, immunity wanes over time. For another, millions of adults have no immunity, having been neither vaccinated nor infected. Finally, Omicron appears to be so contagious that even a modest decline in severity… could still lead to a large spike in deaths….”

But Leonhardt then makes a telling point. He writes that any number of right-wing media personalities

could go on the air and explain that the Omicron variant has placed much of their audience in grave danger. They could remind people that they have been skeptical of vaccines at times — but that Omicron is different. It is so contagious that it may quickly sweep the country.

   As they issued this warning, they could still take their usual swipes at the political left, mocking panicky liberals for wearing masks outdoors and forcing children to sit apart in cold schoolyards. Conservatives don’t need to do any of that; they just need to take a COVID-19 vaccine — the “Trump vaccine” that could save their life. I don’t have any illusions about how likely this scenario is….

   The fact that many of conservative pundits are vaccinated themselves would make a pro-vaccine message from them even stronger. It would surely be more persuasive than anything that President Biden, Anthony Fauci, Rochelle Walensky or a New York Times journalist could say.

The point here isn’t about the efficacy of vaccines, since these media figures by and large claim to support vaccination, and as Leonhardt observes, are themselves vaccinated. The point, instead, as he writes, is that “vaccine skepticism stems in part from messages on social media and conservative outlets…. Pundits on these platforms often stop short of telling people not to get vaccinated, even as they send a general negative message about the shots. They criticize vaccine mandates, sensationalize rare side effects and describe vaccination as a personal choice.”

But there is no contradiction between, on the one hand, believing in the individual right to choose whether or not to be vaccinated and as a result, being critical, even highly so, of vaccine mandates, while still believing that an individual should take the shot. There are rights and there are wrongs, and they do not stand in contradiction.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 891. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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